It's The Little Things-Why Birthday Emails Matter

Image: Chaim Soutine

While I was in art school, one of my professors said something that stuck with me: when viewing a piece of poorly executed art, the average person cannot articulate why or how the perspective is"off" but they always pick up that something is not quite right. Their eyes, and thus their brain, knows that the world they are seeing reflected in the painting or illustration shouldn't really look like that.

Our professor cautioned us that we should either be able to draw perspective well enough to "get it right", or intentionally skew things in an unexpected way so that the audience would get our intention, and the piece would invite further evaluation. If we didn’t do either of those things, and were lucky, our audience might forgive our mistake and appreciate what we were trying to do. Most likely though, he said, it would turn them off to the work.

The same holds true in some ways for marketing communications. The average customer or member doesn’t question how they are being communicated with when things are humming along and it's business as usual, but they immediately notice when something is off; which can create negative perceptions towards the brand they're interacting with. Depending on the audience demographic, communicators have few chances to make mistakes. Older customers tend to be loyal to brands or organizations once they’ve committed to them, but younger customers are notoriously fickle and have little patience for brands that don't hit the right note in their communications.

Conversely, customers notice when something happens that goes above and beyond their expectations. It's my birthday in a few days and I've plugged my date of birth into online forms countless times so it's always interesting to see which companies and organizations that I’ve done business with reach out to connect with me on my special day. I could be jaded and unmoved by an email wishing me well as I get another year older, especially since I know the mechanics and intention behind it, but a personalized email–even if it is automated–still means something and I appreciate the effort that went into it. Someone, somewhere, understood that sending out a birthday email makes a difference and had the thought that it was worth taking the time to program the system to shoot out that email. And when they had the thought, they told someone, who told someone, who actually took the time to make it happen.

Granted, these types of emails are a little self-serving and they're not always completely personalized (I got the birthday email above from the Marine Corps Marathon a full three days before the actual day of my birthday, for example), but they still add a personal touch that I often don't experience from many organizations. If some of the non-profits that I support thought to send me a birthday card expressing gratitude that I am still alive and kicking (and therefore able to continue sending them money) then maybe, just maybe, I'd be more inclined to write a larger check when it came time to solicit my annual donation. Or perhaps I'd be more willing to volunteer my time to help move understaffed projects along. There's no guarantees of course, but for those non-profits who want my continued patronage it's a small investment of time and should be worth a shot.

Furthermore, if executed really well, personalized birthday emails can communicate generosity to a customer; how nice that The Marine Corps Marathon reached out, connected and acknowledged me without needing anything. Now that's intentionally skewing my perspective of their brand, in a very positive way. (Note to non-profits: please don't ever insult your constituents when celebrating them with an ask for money in a birthday card. Same applies to thank you cards and holiday greetings too.)

Getting that birthday email made me feel good about the organization and in turn I spent some time on their website checking out their charity partners. They piqued my curiosity which took my relationship with the organization to a whole new level.

So, is your email marketing interesting your customers or turning them off?

Natalie Zensius is a marketing communications strategist with experience in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Learn more about Natalie at

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